LOS ANGELES — It was just an ordinary day in the journalistic trenches when I got the call. "Gore Vidal has a new book out ... would you like to interview him?" said the voice on the other end of the phone, a well-known Los Angeles publicist.
"Isn't he the guy famous for saying, "It's not enough to succeed. Others must fail?" I asked.
"That's the one," she said.
"The one who said, 'I had never wanted to meet most of the people I had met, and the fact that I never got to know most of them took dedication and steadfastness on my part?"
"That's him," she answered.
"Sounds like a lovely opportunity," I said. "I'll take it."
OK, it didn't happen quite that way. But like everyone – like some people, anyway – I thought I knew who Gore Vidal was, at least on the surface: literary lion, scold, verbal jester, and political screed writer. To double-check my memory, I went on Wikipedia (just to make sure the upstart website was up to snuff):
Author of 25 novels, six plays, 200 essays, and several screenplays. Check. An early novel, "The City and the Pillar," and a later sexual farce, "Myra Breckinridge," credited with pushing the envelope of sexuality in modern literature. Check. Historical novels ranging from the Roman Empire ("Julian") to the birth of the American republic ("Burr") garnered wide respect among historians, and his "United States: Essays 1952-1992" won the 1993 National Book Award. Tried politics in the distant past. Check, check, and check.
Now 81, Mr. Vidal recalls the second half of his life in the just-released, "Point to Point Navigation." I wanted to pick the brain of someone who had been around that long and written that much. But how do you bone up to interview a whiplash-fast wit who has skewered some of the highest-octane intellectuals around? In nightly TV debates at the 1968 political conventions, Vidal famously called William F. Buckley Jr. a "pro-crypto-Nazi," got sued for it, and apologized to the judge by saying: "It was a modest slip of the tongue, I was searching for the word 'fascist.' "
His other stock in trade is trafficking in obscure factoids that can't be disputed without the Library of Congress handy on microfiche. ("Democrat Samuel Tilden in 1876 ... got 264,000 more votes than Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, forcing recounts in Oregon, South Carolina, and Louisiana.")
Practicing sage facial expressions that say, "Well, of course you and I both know that, but..." I approached Vidal's palm-ensconced house in the Hollywood Hills on the Thursday before the US midterm elections. Arriving early, I scribbled details of his living room: oriental rugs, Greek busts, bulb-lit oil paintings, plush antique furniture.
Fashionably late, Vidal arrived in T-shirt and olive robe, tousled hair, carrying a brown wooden cane and aided by an assistant. Remarking that he had recently strained the middle finger of his right hand, his opening remark was characteristically Vidalian: "I've injured my social finger," he said, expressionless but pausing as if for a "badaboom." "I'm having someone look at it later today."
He sat down and stared to the left, as if to tolerate what was about to come. I cooked up an ice-breaker question – regrettable, in retrospect – courtesy of an old congressional campaign poster he had of himself on the wall. "I don't see your name on any of next Tuesday's ballots ... does that mean you've given up on politics?" I said, with what I thought was obvious irony.
"Well, I don't know why I would be on any ballots; I'm not running for anything," he said, rolling his eyes.
"Note to self," I wrote in the margin of a pad. "Move quickly to final questions ... could be short interview."
Vidal – raconteur, controversialist, conversationalist – was generous with his time in the end (90 minutes), but was not about to be drawn out casually. He shut me down on subjects as varied as Bush ("I've written exhaustively about that..."), Arnold Schwarzenegger ("ditto"), and Katie Couric ("Why would I want to talk about her?").
His most telling remark came about himself as a writer. "My memoir is really about other people," he said. "I don't sit around remembering me. I think about remembering others. Since most American writers write about themselves constantly, I know it puzzles some people that I don't go on and on about my sacred story."
He writes about the world he cares about: politics, history, literature – and people who he thinks matter and have been wronged by unfair public notions of them. "I have lived long enough to find over and over that the public notion of public figures is always wrong, carefully wrong," he says. "Either, it's because they've been written about by people who hate them, or ex-wives, or those with an agenda ... the picture you get of these people is so far from the truth."
The motivation to convey what he sees as the correct views of history was a driving force in Vidal's life, according to historian and author Michael Roth, president of the California College of the Arts. "Vidal's great contribution has been as one of America's great historical novelists," he says. "His life has been dedicated to reimagining things about the country's past and the country's leading figures. Vidal thinks he's giving deeper historical truth by giving skeleton facts and then imagining the flesh of characters on those facts."
If that's the good side, he has also been taken to task for "murky pessimism." Sitting in his living room in 2006, it now seems as if Vidal wants to reenvision an America that no longer reads due to a declining educational system ("It stifles curiosity about everything," he says). Or a country bedeviled by corrupt politicians ("This is a set of rulers who do not want to be caught ... they don't want you to know anything so they have a lot to cover up, and they do it very well").
"Practically our entire history has been taken from us," he added, "... why do you think I spent 30 years doing American history? It should have been done in high schools by professionals ... but they don't tell the truth. It was like breaking rocks writing those historical novels."
As we sat there, his earlier words ("the public notion of public figures is always wrong") struck me as an apt description of his own, carefully crafted curmudgeon persona. Mid-interview, Vidal got a phone call from a friend in Texas who just wanted to hear his voice. Vidal could not have been more kind.
That jibed with an encounter I had with Vidal just months before at a movie screening here. Generous and genteel, he chatted with me amiably for 30 minutes, deftly massaging topics that ranged from Jackie Kennedy to Italian politics. That was the Vidal who emerged when he had no idea I was a journalist. The prickly polemicist, if not entirely artifice, seemed to me one of many faces he puts on and off at will – like the numerous art canvases adorning his walls.
Almost inadvertently, other personas in his repertoire began to emerge as I chipped away at his steely exterior. Engagingly, he imitated the southern drawl of his one-time buddy Tennessee Williams: "I did my bist to explain the nature of mitaphor." He mouthed perfectly the strange Massachusetts patois of Jack Kennedy calling Congress a "can of wuuums." He got Richard Nixon's growl and scowl just right. "General Eisenhower was a far more sly and devious man than people suspect," Vidal mimicked. "And I mean those words in the very best sense."
He dropped more names than are in the Manhattan phonebook. He punctuated sentences alternately with Latin and French. Vidal admitted watching Comedy Central, liking Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and said he doesn't use e-mail. Suddenly, he almost seemed to be having a good time when his assistant reappeared. Vidal resumed the role of curmudgeon. "Well, looks like I have to go," he said. "As I stated before, I have to have my social finger looked at."
Despite his best efforts, I found it hard to dislike a guy who loves Johnny Carson and who opens his final memoir with: "The only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies...."